Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.
Valentine folds the letter, sets it down on the table between them. He can hardly look Valykria in the face. He feels a jumble of anger, remorse and dread. Finally he says, “What do you think of her letter?”
“I hardly know what to think. Is it true? Are all those things true?”
“Many of the facts are true, yes. I would dispute her interpretation.” She’s silent, cold. “Valykria, most of this was known to you. I haven’t made any secret of my upbringing. I can’t and won’t defend the Drow, or the Xyrec clan. And, yes, my uncle Tereus was a thoroughly bad man. I learn new facts every day about what a shit he was. I don’t think the Ace of Spades is commonly used to threaten rape, but I’m sure some asshole somewhere has done that, and with my luck, he’s a second cousin of mine.” Valykria’s face is hard, cold, remote. “What do you want me to say?”
“Did you meet with my brother?”
“I did. Valykria, it’s not like it sounds. I told him the truth — that we’re going to be married. Far from concealing your location, I told him that you were Sieia and Xardic’s guest. He certainly never expressed any curiosity about whether you were hurt or frightened.”
“Did you… do those things to him?”
Valentine’s gaze falters, drops, then he forces himself to meet her eyes again, squarely. “Yes. Valykria, he called you his whore. I lost my temper.” Just thinking of it, Valentine becomes visibly agitated. “Valykria, I love you. I brought you here because I wanted to protect you from them. I couldn’t stand to hear him gloat knowing how badly he hurt you.”
“So you men just settled it among yourselves quietly, on the side. You didn’t even tell me he was here.”
“Would you have wanted to know? What do you think you could have done? At least he knows that you’re a Shelawn now, and that you’re under my protection.”
An expression of disgust and rage crosses her face, and Valentine realizes he’s said something very wrong. “I’m not a Shelawn yet,” she says. “Where were you last night?”
“I can’t tell you where I was.” He sighs, rubs his face, tries to think what he can say. He feels exhausted, drained. “You know that I negotiated our release from the Underdark. We both agreed not to volunteer the fact that we were taken prisoner, or to give details about what happened there.”
She looks at him with a kind of dawning, incredulous horror. “Are you fucking kidding me? What do you mean, you can’t tell me? You said ‘No secrets,’ and I trusted you! What the fuck is wrong with you?” Her eyes narrow suddenly. “Valentine, are you a spy?”
He lets the question sit for a moment, hoping it will sound crazy or improbable, and that she’ll withdraw it. No such luck. She’s waiting for an answer. “Valykria, espionage is a capital crime. It’s a serious charge, not a tactic to use in a quarrel. As for your grandmother’s letter — I can see why it’s upsetting. I can’t entirely defend myself. Please, please just tell me what you’re thinking, what you plan to do.” She eyes him coldly. They both know that he hasn’t answered the question. She’s trying to decide whether to press the point.
Valentine feels the rein on his temper slipping. He leaps up, starts to pace. “Valykria, you asked me to take you away from Amakir, and I did it. I did it because I loved you, and I didn’t want to let you out of my sight. We agreed to marry. You know damn well I did that because I love you, not to protect our families from scandal. I confronted your brother because I love you and I couldn’t bear to hear him talk that way about you — it hurt me so much to think of what they did to you. I wanted to protect you and punish him because I love you.” He looks at her with anguish. “I’m sure I made mistakes. I did it all because I love you.”
Finally he says quietly, “You don’t have to say anything. I’ve known all along.”
He says, “Okay, look. You need to tell me now in your own words what you think of that letter and what you intend to do.”
“I know she’s wrong about a lot of the details. It’s not your fault that you were born a Shelawn, or that you were a slave.”
“Thanks,” Valentine says coldly.
She looks up, forces herself to meet his eyes. “But she’s right that I don’t know you and I can’t trust you, and that marriage lasts a lifetime.”
He stares at her in wrathful disbelief. “You know, I think I may have mentioned that last part myself. I’m not the one who insisted that we marry, that it would solve a problem.” He stops in his tracks to glare at her. “Right?”
Her eyes flicker away from his. “Please, Valentine.”
“Please what? Let’s just make sure everyone gets their personal dose of cold honesty here. You don’t love me. You never have. Your grandmother points out with perfect truth that our marriage might be a bad bargain, and suddenly, on the eve of our wedding, you don’t want it anymore. You think you can do better.” The final lap of his pacing brings him over to her chair. He glares down at her as the final, critical point occurs to him: “You resent and fear me because I love you.” His voice cracks out with the force of a bullwhip. “Right, Valykria?”
Her face is averted, pale. She flinches and cowers as if he actually struck her. “Valentine, don’t. You’re scaring me.”
He realizes that he’s standing over her with his fists clenched. She’s retreated as far as she can — she’s curled up in the chair, twisted away from the force of his rage. Valentine can’t quite see himself through her eyes. He knows that armed with swords, they’re evenly matched. He’s never understood that he, Valentine Shelawn — muscled, scarred, tattooed, forged by decades of deprivation — is a terrifying figure. He reeks of violence. He personifies it.
He pivots away from her, strides back to the fireplace, shakes his hands out. It’s not a reassuring move. He’s visibly struggling to contain overwhelming rage.
His body is crying out for release. He looks at the carved marble mantlepiece, its rows of dentils, ovals and quarter-rounds framing a marble frieze. It depicts a hunting scene glimpsed through oak leaves: three hounds downing a cornered stag, all picked out in shallow relief. If he strikes it — just a few quick rounds — it will hurt like a bastard and he’ll split his knuckles. That will almost certainly be enough to bring him back to himself, to drain the charge that’s building within him.
He removes his signet ring, slips it into his pocket.
He knows he shouldn’t do it. Gray elves don’t slam their fists into marble. They don’t even know how to throw a punch without breaking a hand. He’s caught up in a series of calculations, a kind of formula — pain, adrenaline, rage, grief, his desperate need for peace and clarity. He needs to be calm and fair and just in this crisis. She’s a fighter, so surely she’s felt like this. He’s never hurt her. She must know what he’s thinking, must have run these numbers herself many times.
She hasn’t, though. She’s caught up in her own observations: his rage, the trajectory of his steps, the angle of his body, the volume of his voice. She already thinks he’s unstable because his desire for her has been so powerful and persistent. She’s never seen him angry, and now she sees the surf running out, knows that the ocean is gathering itself beyond the horizon. All her attention, all of her intuition and intellect, is concentrated on sensing the force and direction of his anger, making herself into a small and undesirable target.
It’s as if a wheel of fortune were spinning in Valentine’s head. He watches as it slows, clicks firmly into place. With that, he has all the permission he needs.
His fists slam into the mantlepiece, a half-dozen alternating blows at blinding speed. The first four are nothing, the last two sting a bit. He breaks off, looks down at his outstretched hands, sees a couple of shallow cuts on his left knuckles. Six more rapid blows. These hurt badly enough that he actually pulls the last left punch. Blood speckles the frieze — it’s nothing — he’ll tape it up.
He stops, shakes out the pain, flexes his fingers.
The air clears within and around him. He’s been washed by lightning and rainfall.
He turns to look at her. He’s surprised and concerned to see that she’s afraid. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have said those things.” He walks over, bent on reassuring her. He tries to take her hand.
She pulls away. “Please don’t.”
He doesn’t understand what’s happening. Why should she be afraid of him? It’s not like he hit her — that’s exactly what he didn’t do. At the same time, he knows something went wrong with his calculation and he’s broken something, perhaps past repair.
“Valykria….” He wants to appeal to her reason, to share his sudden sense of calm and clarity. “It’s going to be OK. We’ll figure it out.”
“Don’t, Valentine.” She’s still huddled down, twists away as he tries to catch her eye. “Don’t touch me.”
He steps back, genuinely stung and puzzled. Doesn’t she understand how hard he’s trying? “Valykria, I’ve never hurt you — never touched you. I honestly don’t think I could. I have done terrible things. You know perfectly well that I took a blood oath, that I track enemies killed in battle. You saw the tattoos. You’re a warrior — I honestly thought you’d understand all that.”
She shakes her head. Tears are streaming down her cheeks. “It’s not that.”
“What is it, then? I won’t apologize for beating up your brother. I did it because he hurt you. If you heard what he said…”
She shakes her head. “No, it’s…”
He gets down on his knees next to her. He does it to make eye contact, to get close enough to take her hand, but Valykria has the unpleasant sense that he’s groveling, begging for forgiveness. “I would literally do anything for you. You know that.”
“Then leave. Leave now. I can’t talk to you about this. Please go away.”
Dropping her hand, getting up off his knees, he sees suddenly how thoroughly he’s abased himself. There’s much that he doesn’t understand, but he does see that it was hopeless all along. He has miscalculated so badly, been so entirely, willfully blind. He’s almost speechless with shame and sorrow.
He steps back, letting her uncurl, expand. “I’ll go. Tell Sieia what you want me to do, what you need from me. I’m very sorry.”
He can tell that she’s relieved, eager for him to leave. This final lash of humiliation allows him to leave the room, close the door behind him.